As some followers of this blog will be aware, for several years I’ve been documenting trips to Northern France with London-based charity Just Shelter, who raise money, collect necessary items and organise educational activities for displaced children in France. For others, it might come as a surprise to hear that people are still living precariously in Calais and Dunkirk. The well-publicised Jungle closed in 2016 but families and individuals have continued to arrive in the area and many are existing without any of the basics most of us take for granted.
Donated toys are washed and books sorted in a warehouse in Calais before being given to children and families. Another warehouse nearby continues to provide food for people in need. (2020)
Over the last few years, I have focused on landscapes which aim to mark the passing of time, as well as the Just Shelter’s activities, and when appropriate I’ve photographed people we met. Cameras and displaced individuals are not a great mix, but one of Just Shelter’s aims is to remind people that there are still many in need as well as busy, underfunded, volunteer organisations providing support.
The Jungle was a vibrant albeit difficult and unsatisfactory home for up to 10 000 people (January 2016)
A camp behind a shopping centre (Winter 2018)
Food distrubtion (Summer 2017)
Children living in tents (2017)
This weekend was the first time I accompanied Just Shelter after a break of several months, and it was distressing to see that, although some things have shifted, the situation is not improving. One is left wondering if it ever will. Today, as we remember some of the worst events from of our history, we can reflect on the way people are being treated in the US and across Europe, and consider the lack of empathy evidenced by Parliamentarians recently who voted not to reunite refugee children with family members in the UK.
Images of a workshop run by teachers with Just Shelter and volunteers from Project Play this weekend with children who really enjoyed the games and maths lessons provided. (2020)
There seems to be so much upheaval and chaos surrounding us all today, it is very difficult to know how to write about Just Shelter’s trips to France. The team continue to gather donations which people kindly deliver when requested. As always Just Shelter takes everything over to Calais, where they transfer carefully packed boxes and bags filled with the simplest and most basic articles to a warehouse populated by volunteers who give up their time, often for weeks and months on end, in an attempt to help a situation which is seemingly helpless.
Thereafter the London based group travel to a field where people are living in the most appalling conditions, and try in as orderly a fashion as is possible to hand out much needed and appreciated packs of clothing, perhaps some fruit, whatever token of support they can offer.
Each time, I aim to engage with people and I hear the same story. “The police slash our tents. They treat us like animals. The scream at us, push us, they don’t give us even five minutes to get our stuff. Then they take us somewhere. Do they think we would choose to leave our country, our homes to live like this if there was not a good reason? We don’t come here to live like this because we want to. We come because we cannot be free. But here we are treated worse than animals. If we can stay in the sports hall [an indoor space where limited numbers of people can shelter during the coldest months], we are like prisoners with so many rules, lining up, being told when we can come or go.” Another came up to me as I listened to the man and asked me if I knew who I was talking to. “Gengis Khan!!” he laughed. We all laughed. Even though it was bitterly cold, even though people are clearly bored, frustrated, desperate, there is time for irony and humour.
Some of the packs people in London had donated which contained a few vital items
“Take my picture!” some young men invite me towards the fire they are burning. There is little wood and they are using inappropriate donations of women’s nylon underwear from another group visiting which can be worn by no-one here. I take their photos and then get them to message me so I can send them copies. A pair perform and pose with the female undergarments as I photograph them. We all enjoy the playfulness. A guy selling cigarettes stands nearby and asks me if I want to buy any. I don’t smoke, I tell him. We stand quietly and he lets me photograph his bag filled with well-known brands. “A good man. Cheap!” says one of the other guys who had been photographed earlier as he points to the seller. He then indicates to the barber, “A good man also, cheap haircuts.”
“I was a manager in a hotel back in my country. I had a good job. A car. A good home. But no freedom. You criticise the government. And within 24 hours you’re dead.”
When I first arrived at the car park where Just Shelter began the process of handing out backpacks, I noticed a boy who might have been in his late teens or early twenties. He sat on the wooden pole and listlessly watched people queuing patiently for the nominal packs we had gathered from people in London. “Don’t you want one, I asked?” He shrugged. He looked liked he could have done with something warmer to wear. They all did.
At the end of the day, Just Shelter travelled to a more disparate camp where there are many more groups of people. We visited the same camp during our previous visit. I had taken some photographs of boys and young men there before and they recognised me. We greeted each other warmly. Despite their smiles and friendliness, this camp feels darker, less safe. I try to engage with others but it is clear they are not willing. I don’t blame them. I head to the site where the old Jungle used to be and take some photographs to of it now so I can compare with the images I took before.
Afterwards, the group head back to get our ferry. I know we will see some of the same faces again next time.
The Jungle was a vibrant albeit difficult and unsatisfactory home for up to 10 000 people (January 2016)
July 2016 A section of The Jungle had been cleared
November 2016 The Jungle had been entirely demolished but structures were still standing
While our group were there, another team of teachers had been working with children in a local building where families have been able to shelter for the worst of the winter months. The children were grateful for real lessons and their parents equally so. Please follow Just Shelter if you haven’t already so you can read about the work the teachers were able to do while they visited, and to find out how you can get involved.
Yesterday I accompanied Just Shelter, a local organisation which aims to raise funds and items wanted by charities who are supporting refugees. We spent time at the Dunkirk Refugee Children’s Centre helping out and delivering donations from people in my local community. The people who work there do so with a kindness and generosity that should only be admired and applauded. Click on the links to find what you can do to help in some way, small or big.
I also returned to the site that was the Jungle, where I photographed the ice on the ground and ponds until the police asked me to leave. You can see those images and the rest of the project which I began at the end of 2015 here.
Yesterday I visited what was the Jungle in Calais. It was chilling to see. Here are just a few images from our short time there. After we left the demolished camp we visited another camp, founded with a greater degree of state-empathy than was evident in The Jungle. We met an amazing school teacher who has devoted her time for the past several months to taking care of extremely traumatised children in Dunkirk. She works under truly difficult conditions fulfilling a crucial full-time voluntary role. She was an inspirational human being. Just Shelter, the organisation I accompanied, will be aiming to raise funds in the next few weeks to support her and the charity she heads up, Dunkirk Refugee Children’s Centre. As well as documenting we also delivered food needed for the Dunkirk site and learned about plans to feed people who are now living on the streets in and around Calais as well as in Paris. The Jungle may have been bulldozed. The issues have by no means disappeared. Look out for updates from Just Shelter in the coming weeks.
I have documented the area in Calais which was known as the Jungle periodically for a year and you can see more images here.
Recently I was asked to accompany an Earlsfield based association to document their trip to The Jungle in Calais. In the near future Just Shelter aim to raise funds for charities, Calais Kitchen and Jungle Canopy, who feed and help people living in the camp. Please follow Just Shelter to find out more about upcoming fundraising events. There are no NGOs operating properly in Calais and so the volunteers working there are doing so under extremely difficult conditions and really need any help they can get, as do the people living in the camp. With so much going on in the world the media have moved away from The Jungle and donations are less forthcoming. It is becoming harder to maintain the support that is required.
Here are a handful of the images from my previous trip. Please see my site for other images showing some of the conditions people are living under. You can also visit Just Shelter or Calaid-ipedia for further information about what is needed and how you can help. Just Shelter is planning another trip very soon and will welcome donations of money or goods, but please check with Just Shelter about what is required.
It’s the end of half term, which with three boys can be more than a little demanding. I mustn’t complain too much though because we have spent the week relaxing after a very busy few weeks moving house. And how lucky we are to have found a really lovely, spacious home near to everything we need; most importantly for all of us, we are still within the community that I love so much. Of course, most rooms still have a final cardboard box waiting patiently for me to decide whether the things inside are ever going to have a place, or else be ditched like so much other junk I managed to get rid of when I was packing up the old place. I’ve promised myself to be rid of these boxes very soon one way or another because it’s really rather nice having a home where I can put everything away in its proper place, probably for the first time in my entire adult life. Now all I have to do is pay for it. Which means my discomfort around marketing myself is going to have to be pushed aside – I really have no choice about it anymore. Probably a good thing!
However, all of that that pales into insignificance when I am reminded of people travelling the world, having been forced to escape from villages and towns that have been bombed to smithereens. Or where they fear for their lives for any number of impossible to imagine reasons. It might be constant bombing, the threat of starvation, brutality from governing states and other groups, in the form of senseless executions, gender based violence or mindless, heavy-handed coercive measures.
When I see footage and still photographs of people fleeing, and consider the risks and lengths people will go to to reach safety, it makes me feel incredibly grateful to have been born at a time and in a part of the world that is relatively stable. Perhaps the fact that we haven’t had bombs dropped on us for over 70 years is what prompts some to be extraordinarily unflinching and lacking in compassion.
I am prompted to express this after reading some comments on social media, and beneath news articles yesterday, which were really quite distressing. Are people really that wrapped up in their own lives? So hardened to other people’s suffering that they simply cannot imagine what it must be like for a child or teen to be living without adult care in a tent for months. Even with adult care. And I wonder what it must be like to have had no choice but to put your children though that kind of journey. To leave everything you know behind, and exist in transit for months on end, and to top it off, then be faced with so much enmity from people in the countries you travel to.
I was, as I always am, gobsmacked and appalled by the words “them” and “they” – the connotations of “Other”, a people separate and different in some fundamental way from the writers of these comments. “They have places to go….” was one such comment. Really?
As people who read this blog will know I visited the camp in Calais just before Christmas. As we drove towards France my companions and I discussed the shipping containers that have been put in place to house refugees and I thought to myself, well surely that must be better than the cheap nylon tents that are so woefully inadequate. And then I saw the crates. The reality. And I discovered that the authorities were planning to bulldoze the high street, churches, mosques and school that had sprung up in the shanty-town that the Jungle has become. At that time it had been promised that the school and religious buildings would not be bulldozed, but some of them disappeared a couple of weeks ago. More of the Jungle is scheduled to be demolished on Tuesday, although a census indicating that there are many more vulnerable children living there than previously thought has delayed further destruction until a judge has seen it for himself. Whether or not it goes ahead on Wednesday morning, the physical signs of humanity’s resourcefulness are deemed a threat; and so the innate need and ability to create a community, even under the most awful circumstances, is under attack from people who have the resources to do far, far better.
The crates, where a limited number of Jungle refugees may stay, look hard, cold and soulless. They are packed on top of each other and surrounded by a tall metal fence. In effect, a prison has been built for desperate people who have escaped the brutality of their own lands, and everyone wonders why some are reluctant to sign up for it. We shouldn’t be surprised since the UK also has a long record of holding people in ‘detention centres’, including children, where adverse effects on mental wellbeing is well documented. Just this afternoon, I read about someone recently committing suicide in an immigration detention centre in the UK .
Us humans have a long history of being extraordinarily cruel to people from other groups, especially when we fear that they are after our most precious resource – space in which to exist. Sociobiologist, Edward O Wilson, has coined the term ‘groupishness’. Groups are very good at dehumanising different peoples that they fear might be a threat. We are genetically primed for it.
However, when I went to Calais, I saw human beings, who despite having suffered a great deal, greeted me with kindness, generosity, and gratitude for my interest.
We have to do better. Leading economists and international officials wrote an open letter to our prime minister at the beginning of this month critisising the UK’s response so far, calling it ‘woefully inadequate, morally unacceptable and economically wrong”. And last week another letter from celebrities and business leaders*, which can be signed by everyone, implores the UK government to consider the children and families who are being forced out of their makeshift shelters, and ensure they are taken care of properly.
No-one wants a shanty town on the shores of the English Channel. But had the area been declared an emergency zone, making it possible for proper refugee camps to be set up, we might not now be sitting by while people are put inside packing crates.
My oldest son just came downstairs and said to me, without knowing what I was writing about, “Mum, I’ve been thinking… we are so lucky to have been born in the time and place where we are now…”
Yes, my little boy, we really are.
*Add your name to the letter urging our government to act positively for children who need to be taken care of properly and fairly.
 An extract below from an article about a detainee’s suicide, and a review into detention centres, from Politics.co.uk 17th February 2016
“The death comes a month after the long-awaited Shaw review into detention centres concluded that numbers should be reduced “for reasons of welfare”.
It found that the process of indefinite detention with heavily-restricted access to a lawyer was mentally traumatic for many detainees and that there should be a “presumption against detention” for victims of rape and sexual violence, people with learning difficulties, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
[Shaw] also found that the academic literature “demonstrates incontrovertibly that detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability”.”
Yesterday I went to the refugee camp in Calais, known to most of us nowadays as The Jungle. I have spent the last weeks and months watching the story unfold in the media and found it increasingly difficult to understand how we can allow people to exist in such conditions. As a developing photographer I felt compelled to go and see what was going on for myself; I’m not sure why but I knew I had to.
I won’t lie; I was very worried and nervous about it. I’m not a journalist and have never been anywhere like that before. I didn’t know if I’d have the strength. I was also afraid of feeling out of my depth.
As time went on though I felt more and more frustrated by my fear and thanks to encouragement and support from various people I eventually found the nerve to book a ferry crossing, which I did a couple of weeks ago now. I know journalists are telling the story for the newspapers but I wanted to see if there was a story I could tell from a different point of view. From the point of view of a mother since there so many very young people there, and also as someone who just finds the situation shocking, extraordinary and really difficult to understand.
Any trepidation I felt vanished very quickly once we arrived. And not only because I was lucky enough to have an extremely kind hearted friend, Jane, accompany me. We were very quickly invited by two sisters, young women from Eritrea, for a cup of tea. They told us they had arrived in Calais after a three-month journey and that their dream was to get to the UK. Their tent was filled with dolls and soft toys. The welcome we had was the first of many kind gestures throughout the afternoon. After our short visit we hugged the sisters goodbye and then moved on, spending the afternoon meeting people from Eritrea, Syria, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. Most had harrowing stories to tell about why they had left their homes, and about what it was like living in The Jungle.
I could write for hours about who we met but I want this to be read to so I will keep it brief for now.
I will say everyone without fail is extremely cold and damp. The temporary structures that some people live in are not watertight and the damp can be seen and wiped off the walls. People try to insulate them with sleeping bags. It isn’t very effective. Goodness knows how the tents compare.
There is very little to do, so people are bored as they wait for months and months to find out if the UK will take them, or if they might go elsewhere. Grassroots charities have been doing what they can to help alleviate that but that has led to criticism in some corners of the press and gross misrepresentation.
I would love to show you some of the people I met, but having been told by several charities as well as the people living there that portraits can potentially jeopordise asylum applications, I cannot publish them at the moment. I hope the time will come when it is appropriate to reveal those portraits. You will see eyes that are kind and generous, faces that look lost, or in some cases hopeful and even filled with joyful spirit. Often there is a harrowed, desperately sad look too, as you might imagine. And fear, of course. But mostly you will just see people; fellow human beings who have been abandoned by the world at a time when they need the world’s support more than ever.
For now the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is not in place helping to process people. And although I met an independent charity worker there who was assessing the situation to see how it could be improved, I find it shocking that there is so little in place to ensure vulnerable people are being taken care of. I saw and met people who were doing what they could, but other than a few Medicin San Frontiers’ coats, everyone else I noticed helping out was a volunteer attached to a grass roots movement. I don’t understand why other larger organisations aren’t in place. It’s truly baffling. I suppose the policy is to leave it so people might be put off coming but they are still fleeing situations we can only imagine, and it cannot be ignored. It will not go away. It has to be addressed. I wonder how long it will take for the people in power to stop waiting for it to simply go away.
I do not yet know how or even if my own photographic work will develop in relation to the people of Calais. But I will return in the new year if it is possible, if only to give prints to the people I photographed. Of course, I hope very much to do more than that. I could say so much more here but I think I should just leave you with some images that express what I saw. As a photographer I have taken a big step. I know it is possible to go into places that at first seem daunting; in this case however, I was only shown kindness and generosity, and I was able to record some of the impressions that I thought were worth seeing.
I will say, before I go, I met people who were kind, intelligent, articulate and welcoming. I was offered tea, someone’s last cigarette and then a chocolate bar by people who had virtually nothing. We were invited by a group of boys not much older than my 11 year old son to warm our hands above the small fire they had built. Jane and I were guided by several people who were happy to share their stories with us, and who made us feel extremely warm, despite the dropping temperature. We, however, were able to leave and to drive home through the rain in a heated car, knowing that where we were headed was safe and secure. The people we left behind have nothing like that; none of the very basics that human beings should able to expect.